They say that truth is stranger than fiction – well, that’s something Singaporean novelist Kevin Kwan would be happy to testify to.
The situations that his characters experience in his bestselling Crazy Rich Asians series are truly out of this world. There are spectacular parties attended by pop stars and flauntings of wealth that would make the folks in The Great Gatsby look positively modest. Characters go on shopping sprees around the world, attend parties grander than palaces, and live in homes with more artwork than an art gallery.
Some of it seems too amazing to believe. Yet almost everything that happens in his novels is based in reality, the author insists.
“Suffice to say, many of the events and parties described in my books are inspired by true life experiences,” Kwan, 43, says in our e-mail interview.
Asked to describe the craziest Crazy Rich Asian-type party he has attended, however, and he keeps coy: “My lips are sealed. I can say that it involved an amazing fireworks display, a deliciously decadent buffet in the middle of the night, and one of my favourite rock bands. Beyond that, I can’t say more because, firstly, I need to protect the innocent, and secondly, I want to be invited back!”
Stranger than fiction, indeed, is a great way to describe Kwan’s success, too: no one expected his Crazy Rich Asians trilogy about the gloriously rich and dysfunctional Young-T’sien-Shang family to become such a smashing success.
His first two books – the title book was published in 2013 and its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, in 2015 – are global bestsellers, and the final part of his trilogy, Rich People Problems, out this year, is also expected to be a hit.
There are one million copies of Crazy Rich Asians in print worldwide, which was more than enough to catch Hollywood’s attention. The eponymous movie adaptation is directed by Jon M. Chu, and features a stellar cast that includes Malaysian talents Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding; it’s believed to be the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.
“I’ve been very involved since day one with every aspect of the film – it was the only way I would agree to let the film be made,” Kwan says.
“I’m beyond thrilled with how the casting has turned out, and I feel we truly have a dream team of the best actors of Asian descent from around the world.
“It’s almost unbelievable for me to witness the sheer amount of talent and experience assembled in one place. And of course our two Malaysians are the icing on the cake!”
Coming full circle
Kwan, we discover, is no stranger to the lifestyles of the rich and famous: he was born into a prominent family in Bukit Timah, Singapore. His great-grandfather was a founding director of the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corp, Singapore’s oldest bank. His grandfather, ophthalmologist Dr Arthur Kwan, became Singapore’s first Western-trained specialist and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
At 11, Kwan moved to the United States with his engineer father, pianist mother, and two older brothers. He earned a BA in Media Studies from Houston University and a BFA in photography from the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York City.
He also explored writing: he wrote the art book I Was Cuba (2007), co-authored, with Deborah Aaronson, Luck: The Essential Guide (2008), and served as creative consultant on visual books for Oprah Winfrey, Gore Vidal, and Elizabeth Taylor.
It was the breakout Crazy Rich Asians, however, that truly focused the global spotlight on Kwan.
Despite the book’s humorous tone, it has a poignant origin: It was written after the death of Kwan’s father from cancer in 2010. Father and son spent many hours reminiscing about their childhoods before dad passed, and these tales, told with a satirical twist, formed the bedrock of Kwan’s novel.
It is fitting, then, that Rich People Problems, the recently published final part, is focused on a funeral.
“I can’t tell you how many grand Chinese funerals I was forced to go to as a kid. And having to kowtow in front of coffins, etc.
“It’s probably why I’m so mixed up,” Kwan says, the smile evident in his e-mail.
“Asian funerals, even if they aren’t crazy rich ones, tend to be over-the-top, drama-filled affairs. In Book One, everything revolved around this crazy rich wedding, so for Book Three I wanted to bookend it with this crazy rich funeral. It’s the circle of life.”
In Rich People Problems, Nicholas Young, scion of the Young-T’sien-Shang clan (see character guide below), learns that grandmother Su Yi is on her deathbed. Family members convene from all over the world to lay claim to her massive fortune, with the most coveted prize being the magnificent Tyersall Park.
While Nicholas would have been the prime candidate to inherit the estate, he has been disowned after he married Rachel Chu (the main character in Crazy Rich Asians), a US-born Chinese teacher that Su Yi does not approve of.
Back-biting and shenanigans ensue as fights over Su Yi’s wealth take place, with many of the characters from the previous two books making returns, including scheming social climber Kitty Pong, conflicted and noble Astrid (yes, still caught up in marriage woes) and, of course, the spoiled and selfish Eddie Cheng.
In some ways, Kwan says, writing Rich People Problems was easier than the previous two instalments. He did, however, have issues with time management, having had to write it while being involved in developing the Crazy Rich Asians movie, promoting the second book, China Rich Girlfriend, and various other projects.
“In many ways this was the easiest of the three books to write because I knew where I had to take the story and how I wanted to end all the individual stories of these characters.
“I also had the most time to let the ideas percolate – there were five years between when I finished writing Crazy Rich Asians and when I began writing Rich People Problems. So when it came time to write it, it was like a tidal wave of words,” Kwan says.
“I’m just grateful that I got to write the entire trilogy as I intended to, and I’m so thankful that readers kept going on this ride with me.”
Kwan says he wrote the series to showcase different forms of wealth in different parts of Asia; he wanted to show how, for instance, the idea of what constitutes wealth in Singapore is different in Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and so on.
What does he think about the Malaysian rich? According to Kwan, wealthy people in this country seem much more easy-going and low-key than the rich in China, and even some of the rich in Singapore.
“There is an elegance and a sophistication here that I think is really quite impressive – and, of course, I think the Malay royals take it to a whole other level of fabulousness in their ceremonial clothes that’s just so fun to see.
“Beyond that I really shouldn’t say anything more as I really wouldn’t want to risk offending anyone! I hope Malaysian readers in particular enjoy the new Malay characters that I introduce in Rich People Problems,” Kwan says.
Kwan is a big fan of Malaysia, professing to have loved the country since he was a little boy. The young Kwan spent many family holidays in places such as Penang, Kota Tinggi in Johor, and Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill in Pahang.
“I have so many special memories that it’s hard to name a favourite, just like it’s impossible to name my favourite Malaysian dishes. Nasi lemak, rojak, roti canai, mee goreng, I LOVE IT ALL! I could probably win an Ipoh Hor Fun eating contest,” Kwan quips.
While he enjoyed writing about the crazy rich, he doesn’t always approve of attention-seeking antics.
“I do believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility, and I think some of the people out there throwing themselves in front of cameras and promoting every second of their lives on social media tend to do more harm than good,” Kwan says.
“They create a bad impression and detract from so many other individuals who are quietly going about their lives, working very hard and giving a tremendous amount back to their communities and to society.”
And what’s next for the bestselling author?
Kwan is moving from books to the small screen, as he is now developing a currently-untitled scripted television drama with co-creator David Sangalli for STXtv, the television division of American entertainment company STX Entertainment, whose previous films include The Bye Bye Man, The Space Between Us, and The Circle.
Kwan doesn’t share details about the project and there isn’t much talk about it yet, although the Hollywood Reporter states it will involve the same type of globe-trotting, multinational, glamorous ensemble that Kwan’s trilogy is known for.
“It’s going to be totally different than anything I’ve ever done before, and I hope that fans who have loved my books will come along for the ride and allow me to introduce exciting new stories and new characters to them in a whole new way,” the author says.
Asked if he would ever return to the colourful world of the Young-T’sien-Shang clan, Kwan does not rule it out but says there are many other stories he wants to tell before revisiting Tyersall Park. After that, however, anything goes – perhaps even a spin-off about one of the members of the clan?
“It’s so funny, so many readers keep suggesting that I should do spin-offs. And, of course, the most popular request I get from readers is to do a whole book just on Astrid.
“Personally, I think it would be fun to do a whole series on Eddie and his outrageous adventures. I certainly have the best time writing about him. We’ll see,” Kwan says.
Stay tuned, fans….
A who’s who of the people that matter in the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ series
Confused by the crazy shenanigans of the Young-T’sien-Shang clan? Let this character guide help.
There are almost as many characters in Kevin Kwan’s trilogy as there are grains of rice at your average Chinese dinner. OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration – but, really, there are a lot of them! Here’s a guide to some of the main ones.
Rachel Chu: An American-Chinese economics professor at New York University. She falls in love with Nicholas Young, and most of the first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, revolves around her adapting to his incredibly rich Singaporean family. Played by Constance Wu in the upcoming film.
Nick Young: A history professor at NYU. Despite his family’s ridiculous wealth, he is generally quite humble and level-headed. Played by Henry Golding.
Eleanor Young: Nick’s mother. A controlling, social status-obsessed woman who disapproves of her son’s relationship with Rachel. Played by Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh.
Astrid Leong: Nick’s fashionable, very beautiful cousin. Often keeps out of the social spotlight despite her family’s ridiculous wealth. Played by Gemma Chan.
Michael Teo: Astrid’s husband. An ex-army man who owns a successful start-up company. He finds it very difficult to adapt to Astrid’s high-class world.
Charlie Wu: An ex-lover of Astrid’s who still has feelings for her.
Eddie Cheng: Nick’s cousin, who is very spoilt and demanding. His parents are very rich but live a humble lifestyle – something he is very ashamed about.
Kitty Pong: A gold-digging former soap actress who becomes involved in the Young-T’sien-Shang clan’s shenanigans.
Carlton Bao: The son of a Chinese billionaire who is revealed in the second book, China Rich Girlfriend, to have personal connections with Rachel. His girlfriend, Colette Bing, is the daughter of one of the richest men in China.
Oliver T’sien: Another of Nick’s cousins (yes, he has a lot of them). A colourful and flamboyant character who knows all the gossip in town.
Shang Su Yi: Nick’s extremely wealthy and powerful grandmother who lives in Tyersall Park, a very huge estate in Singapore that resembles a palace.